Last week, I had the honor of being a plenary speaker at a superb symposium hosted annually by the Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies at Webster University in St. Louis. The theme of the conference for this International Year of Human Rights was Environmental Justice. The organization of the symposium was a 2-day series of speakers ranging from NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice staff and local nuclear waste dumping filmmaker-activists to academics working on environmental justice. We had opportunities to each speak and answer questions, to meet with each other and members of the audience, and then speak together in a roundtable.
It was both an alarming and an uplifting experience, for the range of folks there from different points of access around issues of environmental justice, and for the engagement with the local issues of St. Louis. I learned so much about St. Louis, in terms of its history of segregation, the related protests occurring there now due to the lack of justice for Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man killed by a police officer who was recently acquitted, and nuclear waste dumping (St. Louis is the city nobody talks about regarding America's nuclear era).
As an academic trained in scholarship, I am sad that I'm not around activists and agency people more often, who come to the questions I theorize and historicize from really pragmatic and situated perspectives. I was in heaven having conversations around shared themes and sharing tools from our respective areas of expertise. It was gratifying to feel I had something to offer them, too, since usually it feels like only the other way around.
Speaking of the value of scholarship and theory to that work, I have made it a goal this year to learn how to give more dynamic talks because I am starting to be invited to give them more, and in a wider array of settings. If I ever cared to make my scholarship meaningful and have an impact on the world, this surely seems my chance, right? I'm so used to dismissing publications and the precious work of intellectual life as irrelevant to what's happening "out there" in the "real world," or perhaps I've just internalized that critique from my students and from society at large, which is so anti-intellectual at this current moment. Also, the neoliberalization of higher education isn't doing us any favors.
But speaking to the public is one way--definitely not the only way--we academics can scale out our work, while making academia seem more relevant to people "out there" or "in the real world," less highfalutin. So, I'm slowly working to do more choreographed, extemporaneous speaking, focusing on only one guiding insight or gap in the dominant knowledge, and providing provocative examples, stories, or visuals.
I don't want to be beholden to the podium and its microphone or its Power Point advancing buttons. I want to move around, not just be a big brainy head popping up over a big wooden lectern hiding my body. I want to change the affect in the room to be more receptive to the thoughts that I must think are so fabulous I just had to occupy all the audience's space and time to share.
My talk was on the relative merits and pitfalls of bringing the tools of environmental justice into considerations of "human rights". I particularly wanted to focus on the differences between environmental and social justice efforts, and why there is a lot of suspicion of environmental groups entering social justice conversations. Here, I drew on my book, The Ecological Other, to explain the history of social oppression in the name of nature. I concluded by drawing on Julie Sze and Lindsey Dillon's work on "Police Power and Particulate Matters" to use the case of Eric Garner's last words, "I Can't Breathe" to illustrate the value of a environmental justice analysis that recognizes a shared root of structural violence causing both police brutality and increased health hazards in black communities, to help connect the context of what's happening in St. Louis to the topic of the symposium.
Meanwhile, I learned an immense amount from the following plenaries who shared the lineup with me:
- Jaskiran Dhillon, scholar-decolonial activist and author of Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention (2017).
- Carl Zimring, author of Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the U.S.
- Carolyn Finney, scholar-activist and author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Outdoors
- Marnese Jackson and Bruce Morrison, NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice representative and lawyer, respectively.
|Marnese Jackson, me, and Bruce Morrison at the symposium|
- Carl, Allison, and Dawn, creators and subjects in The First Secret City, a brand-new documentary seeking to raise attention around the health impacts of aluminum processing and the movement of nuclear waste around the city.
- Sylvester Brown, Jr., who had an illustrious career as a reporter and writer, before launching his answer to the economic problems that give rise to violence against blacks-- The Sweet Potato Project.
|Carl considered Dove's retracted ad campaign from the weekend in his analysis of "racial hygiene" in America|
Thanks so much to Lindsey Kingston, Kate Pearsons, Karla Armbruster, for bringing me to Webster for this event, and to my beloved student Madi Whaley for helping me conceive of and build this talk, ground me in the St. Louis protests, and find some resources on how to deliver talks better. Also, a highlight of the trip for me was exchanging ideas with this troop of young activists (below) who made all our work on stage pale in comparison to the work they do "out there", but also, they were so rad because they cared to make the "experts'" lectures relevant to their own efforts- Andrew, Adam, Amber, and the crew, pictured below. Kids these days....